Fleas, fire, heat and St. Michael the Archangel.
Those four associations came to mind in the past week’s terrible fires and oppressive heat wave.
The heat reminded us that it was St. Michael the Archangel who, according to scripture, cast Lucifer from heaven into the fiery pit before the beginning of human time.
Our own Mission San Miguel Archangel is named in honor of St. Michael, and perhaps for good reason. Last Sunday, San Miguel sweltered at 106 degrees.
The site of the future mission was picked in 1795 by Father Buenaventura Sitjar, who came down from Mission San Antonio de Padua some 40 miles north of San Miguel. The site was called Valica by the Salinan Indians and Paraje de los Pozos (“Place of Wells”) by the Spanish soldiers. It was surrounded by level land that was suitable for growing wheat.
Father Sitjar suggested that a mission be established near where the Nacimiento River flows into the Salinas River. He noted the number of nearby Native Americans and the availability of building materials and water. His report to Fermín de Lasuén, the Father President of the California missions, also notes that there were limestone quarries nearby and pine trees a short distance away.
San Miguel was the fourth inland mission founded in lands traversed by the Salinan people. The neophytes at this mission were referred to as Migueleños. The Salinan Tribe continues to regard San Miguel as “the mission that we built.”
During the 1820s the mission realized most of the hopes of its founders. The introduction of narrow-bladed grasses provided ample forage for vast herds of cattle. The herds rose to an average of 22,000 head during the early 1820s.
The mission became the Central California gateway to the San Joaquin Valley. Mission San Miguel’s Father Juan Vincente Cabot established outposts as far east as the San Joaquin River during the late 1820s.
A number of the Franciscans stationed at San Miguel complained of the damp cold winters and the heat of summer.
The friars soon learned how to deal with arthritic pains by following the practice of the Native Americans in employing the mud baths at the hot springs along the banks of the Salinas River.
Even the summer’s heat was eventually dealt with through the padres’ sense of humor. Fleas had been the bane of California travelers since the Portola expedition in 1769 complained of “las pulgas” at campsites from San Onofre on the San Diego county line to what is now romantically named “Avenida de las Pulgas” west of Redwood City in San Mateo County.
The Marines who train at San Onofre, a section of Camp Pendleton, have a far less romantic memory of fleas on a bivouac site referred to as “the Shelf.”
Alfred Robinson, a Boston merchant with Bryant, Sturgis and Co., visited San Miguel in 1830.
Robinson recounts that the mission “.... is built near the extremity of a small pass through the hill, where the sun casts its burning heat in a degree almost insufferable. They say there, in proof of the warmth of the Mission, that the fleas cannot endure the summer months, and during the heat of the day may be seen gasping upon the brick pavements!” Saint Michael has kept his namesake’s summer days free of fleas for more than two centuries.
Unfortunately, the Archangel doesn’t seem to help with earthly heat and fire.